Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Small(er) World

In 1984, at age 23, I packed up a large orange backpack with clothes, some music cassettes, and a copy of Let's Go Europe, and took a one-way flight to London. I had no agenda and no time frame for myself. I might be gone a month, I might be gone forever. With nothing particularly promising going on for me at home, all bets were off.

Stories about that trip could occupy blog posts from me for months. It was one of the great experiences of my life, and a turning point for me in every way. I stayed for four months, returning for the birth of my brother's first child (who just gave birth to HER first child a few months ago). Had that not happened, I don't know how long I would have stayed. Probably a lot longer.

I've been back to Europe many times since then. Partly as an indirect result of that trip, I married a French woman, so as often as our time and expenses can afford we visit her homeland. I'm writing this now from Cabris, France, a small town near Cannes, where we've spent a week relaxing and sightseeing and generally trying to tune out.

The key word in that last sentence, however, is "trying." Because one thing I've been thinking about on this trip is just how much the world has changed, and shrunk, since I first came here in 1984. Back then, there was no email. Back then, there were no cell phones. Back then, there were no websites, or Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram to keep you constantly in touch with the people in your life no matter where in the world you were.

I'm not a Luddite by any means (I'm typing this on my iPad 3 with Bluetooth keyboard attached - there was no way I was going to travel without it - and I've used it constantly throughout the trip), but I do admit to feeling a little bit of old man nostalgia at The Way Things Used to Be while over here this time. On that trip in 1984, I truly felt the reality of my geographical situation: that I was on the other side of the world. No one I knew had any way to get in touch with me. And the only way I could communicate on my end was via postcard, or pay phone, which was an unreliable, complicated, and expensive process. The only news I'd get would be from the International Herald Tribune (or occasionally, depending on the city, the NY Times).

I kept track of my experiences rather meticulously in a written journal, which I own to this day--but this really just for myself. I wasn't sharing "updates" with either people I knew or in the kind of public postings (like this one) that have become a part of my regular life. What I was experiencing was private, and, at age 23, profound and overwhelming, for the specific reason that I was experiencing it alone, without a lifeboat, as it were, of contact with the world that I knew.

I marvel every single day at the miracle of the Internet, of the instant access to information and communication (it's how I make my living, of course), and would not want to have it any other way now. It's insane how lucky we are to be living at this time, with this incredibly empowering technology. If I'd known, back then, that there'd come a day when I could basically own any record or book within seconds of thinking of it, without even having to leave my couch, my head might have exploded. And this is without even getting into the far more serious political and social advances that the Internet has created, through the democratization of information.

But, sitting here in this house in France, knowing that I'm about to hit the Send button on this post, for anyone in the world to read within seconds, and knowing, too, that after posting this I will goof off on Twitter and Facebook and Reddit, connecting with everyone I know as if I never even left, I think something was lost, too. Yes, I could disconnect all my devices and pretend it's 1984 again. And for the most part, I have done that on this trip.

But whether I voluntarily choose to connect or not doesn't change the singular fact that the world is much smaller than it used to be. For better and worse, there's no going back. Being "on the other side of the world" will never again mean what it used to. We're all in each other's business all the time now. It's a freaking miracle, is what it is.

But I'm glad I got to live in a time when it wasn't always like this. When it wasn't a choice. When you were out of touch because you had to be. When being out of touch was kind of the point.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


jeff said...

Nicely put, Jeff. We stayed at a little Loire Valley inn last year that was like stepping back in time 200 years ... but with amazing WiFi. (Le Moulin Bregeon, if anyone plans to be in the area—wholeheartedly recommended.)

Hey, maybe one day the power grid will collapse and we'll be able to get all wistful about this time too, when we aren't busy clubbing each other to death for food with our iPad 1s.

Brian said...

Thanks for the easygoing vacation read!

I'm a couple decades younger than you but I might have gotten my start with computers and gaming around the same time as you - around 1984. It's sure nice to get a sense of perspective visiting old places and appreciating them contextually juxtaposed with modern conveniences.

Oh, and thanks for the tease about your old travel journal. Guess what your slavering fans are going to rattle your cage for now.

Chris Hajny said...

Your trip to Europe sounds amazing. Being 31, t's hard to imagine, but it sounds great.

I've been to Iceland twice in the last 5 years, and part of the reason I find it so magical is the forced isolation. It's a rare, and somewhat scary, treat.

My wife and I fly into Reykjavik, grab our rented jeep and copy of Lonely Planet and hit the road. For two weeks we have no plans, no phone, no places booked to stay... and it's completely amazing.

There are some hardships; sometimes we end up not being able to eat for a night, or sleeping in some strange places, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

We just got back from our most recent trip a couple weeks ago. When we were there, an Icelander asked why we visited Iceland from Minneapolis. Surely there's things in the US we hadn't seen.

And my reply was that america had plenty to see and do, but really getting away was hard part.

Although I have to confess, I did bring my iPhone. I couldn't use it for anything, normally, but every so often we'd hit a town or guesthouse that had WiFi, and I'd check in...

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say how great it was to read this blog post. My brother just graduated from college and decided to go on a European trip. Like you, he doesn 't have a return ticket and I am not sure when he will be back. I told him it was something he should definitely do while he was young and he is having a great time there. It was great to hear your perspective on this.

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